With All Due Haste
21 September 1393
The Duke of Trebane returned to the encampment after only a few minutes, followed by a group of men from the village. Eleanor sat astride Hallam's horse, trembling and finally dry-eyed, watching as the men began to dredge the river for the bodies of Henry's men and guards. It wasn't long before they were all found—Lords Walton, Deerfield and Paulet, and the three guards, whose names were not known to the Queen, as well as a large man with a dagger still stuck in his eye.
Henry had indeed gone down fighting like a devil, Eleanor thought, with no small amount of pride.
She listened to the Duke and Hallam talking to the villagers, asking them what they had seen or heard in the past two days, but none of them had any inkling of an attack from the north. Naturally, they were all horrified to learn of the King's death, and they all stood around, staring at the wrapped body of their dead monarch and glancing at the Queen, expressions sorrowful.
Hallam finally approached Eleanor, bowing slightly to her. "Ma'am, it is imperative that we leave this place soon. There could be Lacovians about."
"See that the bodies of King's gentlemen and guards are returned to their families, and that funds be provided for their burials, if required."
"Of course, ma'am."
"We must return to Luvov with all due haste," Eleanor said, her voice flat and dull, but her eyes were hard and almost glowing with rising fury as she watched a group of men pick up her husband's body and carry him to a small horse-drawn cart.
A bloody dog cart, she thought. Crowned and anointed, ruling with a compassionate, genuine heart, and he is reduced to being carried home in a cart!
"Ma'am, the Lacovians might already… "
She settled her angry blue gaze on Hallam again. "I want to return to Luvov and see to my children, Lord Hallam. As I said before, if you do not escort me I will go alone!"
"Yes, ma'am." He turned and gestured to Trebane, who stomped over to him, expression as dark as the Queen's. "Thomas, the Queen requires an escort home."
"Ma'am, we think it best if you and the King and the princes be taken out of the country… perhaps to Morvenia or to Livonia…" Trebane started.
"Like bloody hell we'll leave the country!" Eleanor shouted at him, startling the Duke, who took a step back in alarm. "I insist on going back to Luvov now!"
The villagers standing near the bodies were surprised to hear their Queen shouting, but they kept silent. In fact, most of them looked rather impressed with her words and her resolve to not abandon the country. She regained some of her composure for their sake and made herself look at least outwardly serene, but her heart was pounding and all she could see when she closed her eyes was Beauchamp heading for her children, sword raised. She squeezed her eyes shut and saw herself stabbing Beauchamp, again and again, and though she knew it was hardly becoming of a Queen, the notion did make her feel better. A little.
She was going to kill the bastard, just the same. Even if it was with her last breath, she was going to kill him. She had given him fair warning, and had issued no invitations for him to come to her country and murder her husband.
"You will collect the King's body, too, and bring him with us," she finally managed, through clenched teeth. "The royal family is taking refuge in St. Michael's, but by no means will any of us leave the country. We will inter the King in the cathedral."
"But ma'am," Trebane tried again. "Your safety is of the utmost…"
"Did you not hear me, Your Grace?" Eleanor shouted at him, her temper boiling over at last. "I will go to Luvov with an escort or without, if need be, sir!"
Exasperated, Trebane looked at Hallam, who made a 'shut up for God's sake!' gesture and mumbled "Get on your damned horse, Thomas!"
The Duke conceded defeat with good grace and swung astride his destrier. Hallam mounted, too, and watched as the King's body was carefully loaded into a wagon. Eleanor ignored Hallam, turning her horse south and galloped away, followed by Hallam and the Duke, neither of whom had ever seen such mayhem in the heretofore gentle woman's eyes. The wagon bearing the King's body followed behind, escorted by a group of soldiers from the village garrison.
"I insist someone tell me what is going on," Alexander said, settling a startlingly regal gaze at Sir Niall Lassiter, who was anxious to get back to the palace to continue with the task of evacuating.
"I'm very sorry, sir, but for now I am not at liberty to say."
Alexander exhaled sharply. He glanced around the expansive underground quarters of St. Michael's cathedral, frowning at the crypts of various dead royal personages. Upstairs were the elaborately carved crypts of his crowned ancestors, save King Andrew, who was interred at the palace. The sight of the crypts did not unnerve him, but being ordered to pack up his belongings in such short notice and then to be herded into a plain coach with his brothers had not exactly left him feeling particularly calm.
And where on earth were his parents?
He knew something was horribly wrong, of course, and not being told was making him anxious and agitated. He was the Crown Prince, and as such he felt it only right to be kept abreast of all developments—didn't he already attend Council meetings with his father? He faced Sir Niall again, but the tall Irishman shook his head, though his expression was sympathetic.
"Sir, I would tell you all, but I have my orders and I have sworn to keep them to the letter. Please just… trust us."
Alexander frowned. "Where are my parents?"
"I'm sure Her Majesty… and His Majesty will tell you all when the time comes, sir. But I must go. I will return shortly."
The young man could only nod and allow the Captain of the Guard to leave. He sat down on a bench and stared up a stained glass window displaying the Crucifixion and did not find the image terribly comforting. He started at a sound and was relieved to see Elizabeth coming to him, and he moved aside to give her room to sit. Gently, he slipped his arm around her waist and held her close, feeling much better in her quiet, gentle presence. "What is going on?" she asked him.
"I don't know. Whatever it is, my mother was adamant that the household be kept here until… "
"Until what?" she asked.
"I don't know. I'm sure we will know soon enough. I hope you are not frightened, Elizabeth."
"I cannot deny being a little… unnerved, to be down here, amongst all these crypts and priests and nuns." She smiled at him, a tiny spark of mischief in her eyes. "Hardly conducive to romance."
"Eh… yes, that's very true. Nun… kind of says it all, doesn't it?"
She giggled, and squeaked and sighed when he leaned in and kissed her softly. She slipped her arms around his neck, kissing him back, and sighed happily when he embraced her tightly. He held her for a long time, grateful to have her in his arms and relieved that she was safe. The idea of ever seeing her harmed made his throat constrict and his natural need to protect her grow ever stronger. "I love you, Elizabeth," he said softly, touching her hair.
She looked up at him, green eyes bright and brimming with tears. "I know. And I love you."
He smiled and kissed her again, and saw Frederick standing in the doorway, looking amused. "Little brother."
Elizabeth gasped and stood up. She scrambled to rearrange her bodice before turning around. "Frederick," she said, trying to sound as collected as she wished she looked and felt.
"Elizabeth," the younger prince nodded, grinning. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I need to speak with my brother."
She squeezed Alexander's hand before dashing away, back to the rooms where the Queen's household and some of the King's gentlemen were being housed. Frederick looked up at the stained glass window and frowned before turning back to face his brother. "Something is wrong, Alex."
"No one will tell me anything!" Frederick said, clearly frustrated. "Mama has gone God knows where. Papa is missing. Sir Niall was very agitated, remember, when he told us to leave the palace and one of the servants told me Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane both left in quite a hurry, but no one knows to where or even why. Do you think Lacovia is attacking us?"
"It would not surprise me."
"But Mama should not be out and about if that's the case," Frederick said, shaking his head.
"Why not? She knows a good bit about commanding an army, remember. She whipped them at the Field of Stones, when I was still in her belly."
Frederick looked around the room, mouth twisting at the sight of so many crypts. Many were occupied by his relatives and ancestors, but none of them offered the smallest degree of comfort or reassurance. "I don't want her whipping anyone. I want her here where she's safe." He looked down. "At least… at least Ellie is here, and Lorenzo and Lady Agnes. They're always very jolly, but dammit, Alex… Ellie is terrified. She says that we would take refuge in the cathedral only because our lives are in danger."
"I know. We should… we should go and sit with them, and keep them distracted."
"She doesn't understand war. She doesn't understand violence of any kind. All she knows is… is sweetness and kindness and warmth."
"Aye, that's very true. A gentleman's daughter, through and through, and a perfect soldier's wife someday," Alexander said with a smile. Frederick's cheeks pinked a little but he offered no argument and followed his brother back to the rooms being taken over by the royal household. The two princes greeted their younger brothers, noting Harry's moroseness at being separated from Xenia, while William hated being confined. George and Andrew played chess and talked quietly together, speculating on the reason for being brought to the cathedral, and Sir Lorenzo and Lady Clothilde worked quietly at arranging beds and blankets for everyone while Agnes prepared a separate room for the Queen. Alexander sat apart from everyone, even Elizabeth, and worried about his parents and what could be happening out there, even now.
Where were his parents?
Eleanor rode hard along the road to Luvov, and stopped her horse at the gate. She pondered for a moment, wondering, and Lord Hallam pulled up beside her, panting. "Dear God, woman, you ride better than most twenty-year old cavalrymen."
"Lord Hallam, I must go to the cathedral and remain there for now, with my family. I have a task for you in the meantime."
"Anything, ma'am," Hallam said, watching the Duke gallop up to them, looking worn out. He was not accustomed to dealing with the stubborn side of the Queen, and was probably a little put out at being outridden by a little woman. Just the same, the Duke was listening attentively and was ready to do as the Queen directed.
She scrambled in her saddlebag for a moment, finally extracting a piece of paper. She wrote quickly, the two men watching nervously, and she finally folded the paper and handed it to Hallam. "Take this to Prince Constantine of Morvenia, with all haste. Do not stop even for a moment—take the shortest route possible, through the lowlands to the west. I can only pray he is still at home, and in Garon." She looked at the Duke of Trebane. "I want you to go and gather the army—every division, without exception, is to be ready to move when called, but they are all to be settled someplace where they cannot be noticed—perhaps in the royal forest. Do you understand me, sir?"
"Yes, ma'am," Trebane said, nodding. He looked at Hallam, eyebrows raised, and both men wanted to ask the Queen the same question, but neither had enough nerve. Trebane wheeled his horse around and galloped away, but Hallam stayed still.
"Ma'am, you must tell Alexander… "
"I know." She bowed her head. "It will break his heart."
"But he will endure. I know he will—he is Henry's son, is he not?"
"And yours, ma'am," Hallam said gently. "He has Henry's spirit and your steel. I cannot imagine him faltering. He will be an excellent King, ma'am, and Gravonia will prosper under his watch. And you can be sure that I will serve him as faithfully as I did his father."
She swallowed and looked at Hallam—perhaps her most trusted, loyal friend among Henry's men—and touched his arm. "I know he will, and I know we can count on you, James. But how I shall tell him this news… " Tears stung her eyes, but she wiped them away and lifted her gaze back to Hallam. "We were expecting so many more years... I am not ready… "
Hallam's horse shifted and he grasped her hand, finally lifting it to kiss her knuckles. "Do not fear ma'am. Every man, woman and child in Gravonia loves and supports the King, and when they hear of this… outrage, they will not yield one inch to Beauchamp or those damned Lacovians. Of that I am absolutely certain, ma'am—they will all swear their allegiance to Alexander and none other. I will deliver this message to Prince Constantine… I can only assume you are requesting his help?"
"Can you name a better general of a better army?" she asked softly.
"No. Without disparaging our soldiers in the least, ma'am, I will say that Constantine alone will put the fear of God into Beauchamp." He peered briefly at the Queen. "Though I daresay Beauchamp would be wise to fear you even more."
Eleanor was relieved to see that, so far, no Lacovians appeared to have entered Luvov. She wrapped her cloak around her body, dismounted from her horse and led him unnoticed through the streets to the cathedral doors, pausing at the font to wash her hands and her face, noting that her dress was still stained with Henry's blood. She was glad there were no mirrors about, so that she could focus entirely on the task at hand and not worry about her appearance, though she was honest enough with herself to know she would fret over how she looked anyway.
Had Henry died of natural causes, in his bed—as it should have been, many years from now—she would have ordered all the clocks stopped and all the mirrors covered in black cloth, and would have set about arranging a proper State Funeral. There would be time for arranging all the necessary minutia of a royal internment, including seeing to the King's effigy being brought up from the palace storage rooms…
The thought of it made her eyes sting again. She forced herself to push the doors open and stepped into the cathedral, shivering a little in the magnificence of the vast house of worship. She looked up at the chandeliers and slowly walked past the crypts containing various long-dead Kings and Queens of Gravonia, and she paused for a moment to look at the effigy of Henry's own mother. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I swear to you, I will avenge him. I swear it before Almighty God."
Eleanor started and turned around, facing Archbishop Nichols, who bowed quickly to her. He was dressed in his usual humble black robes—despite his station as leader of the Church in Gravonia—and he was anxiously wringing his hands. "Your sons and your household are all here, ma'am, and are quite safe."
She exhaled, wanting to weep with relief. "Has anyone told them anything yet?" she asked, after scraping herself back together a little.
"Nay, ma'am. The princes are all quite uneasy, just the same, and your ladies are a bit frightened. I think they have an inkling… is there anything I might do for you, ma'am?"
"It would be a great help, sir, if you would pray for the King." She touched his hand, and he clasped it tightly. "For King Alexander, that is. And perhaps you might go into the cathedral's treasury and see if you might find a proper crown for my son to wear for his coronation." She nodded to him, ignoring his stunned expression, and turned toward the set of doors off the western nave, which lead down the rather pokey stairs to the catacombs and storage rooms where she knew her sons and her household were staying. She paused outside the door, suddenly gripped with fear and doubt. Alexander was the King now—a young man of just eighteen, and suddenly thrust into a position he had been trained for from birth yet did not relish taking. He had expected years to get ready for his task, learning the art of rule and leadership from his father. He was of age, and so he would not require a regency, and for all intents and purposes Eleanor's own position in the government was over. She was going to have to step aside and let her baby take over.
But she was going to have to keep working, until she was certain that all was well. She could not relent or rest for even one moment until her son's position as King was unchallenged.
Catherine Trueblood's prophecy had been true, then, Eleanor thought with a bitter laugh. The steps to the throne were indeed covered with blood, and she could feel the sword piercing through her very soul. The last bit of the prophecy—the part where the secrets of her heart would be revealed—was the one that she feared the most, but for Henry's sake, she would not relent until all threats were put down and her sons were safe.
Nineteen years, she thought, finally opening the door and stepping into the hallway to the stairs. Nineteen years, she and Henry had been together, dreaming and planning and praying and raising their children, hoping to God in Heaven that they were doing all the right things and making as few mistakes as possible. Henry had been a loving, attentive and understanding father to his sons, and Eleanor had done all she could to teach them to be not only good leaders but also good men. But…
Alexander was eighteen. She knew him better than anyone, and she knew he was a mature and level-headed young man. But to ascend to the throne this way, and to start his reign under such awful circumstances would making this blow twice as painful.
The Queen made her way down the stairs to the catacombs, shuddering as she passed the carved-in shelves where bones still lay, covered in cobwebs, and she paused to trace her fingers over carvings of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail and other symbols. She had always found the Grail stories to be nonsense, as no such thing was mentioned in the Scriptures, and had sniffed in derision at wild-eyed knights who passed through Gravonia on their way to the Holy Land, claiming to be on a quest to find the Cup of Christ. She had only reminded them that they ought to be trying to love God and to keep His commandments and to stop worrying about a cup that was of no importance at all.
Outside the door the storage rooms and sandstone chambers where her family and household waited, she looked up and prayed. "Dear God, do not let me waver or shrink from protecting my children. Give me strength, and let me greet my husband's murderer with fire."
Breathing deeply, she knocked lightly, and a few moments later Clothilde opened the door. "Your Majesty!" she gasped, and stepped back, looking as though she wanted to embrace the Queen but restraining herself. Eleanor stepped in, removing her cloak, which Agnes took, eyes wide and fearful as she studied the Queen.
"Ma'am, your dress… "
"Where is the Ki-… where is Alexander?" Eleanor asked.
Clothilde's brow furrowed, but she gestured to the other side of the room. "The princes are in the next room. Andrew is fighting his way through his German lesson."
Eleanor smiled softly. Andrew hated German—he claimed the words got together at night, bred, and created new, longer, harder-to-pronounce words. "Thank you, Clothilde."
"Ma'am, what is going on?" Agnes asked anxiously. "I'm frightened—has something bad happened?"
Eleanor smiled at Agnes, loving her old friend for her sweetness as much as for her lack of understanding of evil. "Do not fear, Agnes. All will be well in the end." She drew in her breath and went on to the next door, knocking softly and stepping inside. Alexander stood when he saw his mother, and his brothers quickly followed suit.
"Mama!" Andrew said, launching himself at his mother, German verbs forgotten, and he embraced her tightly. "We were all so worried. Where have you been? Where is Papa?"
Alexander's expression was pensive, and he approached his mother cautiously, noting that her scarlet bodice was stained dark, and he could tell the stains were not water. He took her hands in his.
"Sweethearts," Eleanor said softly. "My sweet boys… I must tell you… I must tell you that your father has been murdered at Willemet, and that Beauchamp has every intention of usurping the throne."
The six boys stared, bewildered, at their mother. Alexander was silent, while Andrew burst into tears and clung to his mother, who cradled his head against her chest as he wept. The other boys dropped down into chairs, shocked and soon in tears as well, but Alexander remained on his feet, expression inscrutable.
"Alexander, allow me to be the first to kiss the hand of my King," Eleanor said softly. She gently extricated herself from Andrew's embrace and took her eldest son's hand in hers and gently kissed his knuckles. "You will always have my love and my loyalty—and you will always have my devotion, first as your mother and then as your faithful subject."
The Crown Prince—now King Alexander IV of Gravonia—accepted his mother's homage in silence, but she saw a hardness settle in his eyes as he seemed to slowly absorb the enormity of his new position, with all its cares and privileges. Eleanor waited as the boys returned to their chairs, all still in tears, before she finally touched her eldest son's face. "Sweetheart, we must take action. What do you wish to do?"
"Beauchamp has killed my father. Our father must be avenged."
"Yes, Alexander. And five of the King's own good men were also brutally and shamefully murdered, and I have no doubt Beauchamp will kill many more people before all is said and done. We must protect and defend the people of Gravonia first and foremost—they must take precedence, sweetheart, even over your own family and friends."
Alexander jerked away from his mother, eyes brimming with tears as he shook his head in disbelief, clenching his fists. "My father... How can he be dead? He cannot be dead, Mama! This… this must be some sort of… of… mistake."
"No. I found his body myself, Alexander. It is his blood on my bodice."
"Where did you find him?"
"At Willemet, along the Savern River. Your father fought them like a devil. Beauchamp showed his stupidity and arrogance, of course, by hiding Henry's body inside the tent. I suppose he thought no one would dare go inside while his standard was still flying… "
"So he died… this morning?" Alexander asked, his voice choked.
Alexander dropped into a chair and ran his hand through his hair. Frederick clenched and unclenched his fists, and Eleanor could hear him half praying, half growling. The other boys were silent as well, grieving as the enormity of their loss settled over them. The Queen finally sat down next to her eldest son and embraced him, and he finally broke and began to weep as she cradled his head to her breast. She said nothing—what was there to say? What words could comfort her son now?
Suddenly, the King stood and paced to the door. He yanked it open and stepped out into the larger room, where the Queen's ladies, Elizabeth and some of Henry's gentlemen were standing. "My father the King is dead," he said.
Everyone in the room gasped, and the women began to cry. Elizabeth sat down, covering her face with her hands, and began to sob, and Lady Anna Hallam moved to sit down beside her, embracing her and letting the girl weep on her shoulder. Elizabeth's other two ladies—Ellie and Meg—were also in tears, and stood with the other courtiers, shedding tears of genuine sorrow.
Alexander drew in his breath. "I… we will follow the same… same principles set forth by our honored father. As such, we will look to the Queen Mother and to the Council for advice and… guidance. We are very young, but we have all intentions and hopes of being a good and conscientious monarch."
Eleanor stayed back, Frederick at her side, and spied Archbishop Nichols coming into the room, carrying a small gold coronet, the scepter and the orb, as well as a flask of oil. She gestured to her boys to go into the room, whispering instructions to them all. The boys moved quietly into the room to face their brother with the small crowd of nobles, courtiers and gentlemen and ladies of the household. Nichols moved to face the King, and Alexander knelt down, seeming to not mind the hard stone floor.
"I do anoint thee as our rightful monarch, by the grace of God Almighty, through His blessed Son, Jesus Christ," he said, and poured oil from the flask into Alexander's hair before marking a cross on the new king's forehead. The sickly sweet smell of the stuff made Eleanor's stomach lurch slightly, partly from her nerves, partly from the memories of having the same stuff poured into her own hair, years ago, on the day after her wedding. Some of the oil poured down Alexander's cheek, but he made no move to wipe it away.
The Archbishop raised the crown above Alexander's head. "And I do crown thee, the fourth Alexander, King of Gravonia. May God bless and keep you all the days of your life, and may you enjoy a long and happy reign in His service, for all we are or have or will ever have doth come from Almighty God, and it is in His grace that we live and breathe and have our being." He settled the gold coronet on Alexander's head, and everyone in the room bowed their heads, some still weeping. The Archbishop then handed Alexander the scepter and the orb. Alexander stood and faced the east, and Nichols boomed out "Here is the King, anointed and crowned!" He said the same words three times more as Alexander faced the west, the north and the south, and when he finished the proclamation, the courtiers and the household repeated the potent words. "God save the King!" Light from the stained glass window above made the gold on the coronet glint softly, and the rubies flashed before the light faded. The Archbishop extracted the ancient chain of office from the velvet bag and hung it on Alexander's neck. "I do set upon thee the cares and joys of this great nation with this emblem of your office, which has been worn by the kings of Gravonia since time immemorial, and may you execute the laws of this land with sobriety, compassion, justice and mercy."
The Archbishop stepped back and made a slight gesture with his hands to the Heir Presumptive—Frederick, who stepped forward and knelt down on one knee before his brother.
"I, Frederick, do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship and faith and truth. I will bear unto you to live and die against all manner of folks."
The other princes did the same, one at a time, each one composed, his voice clear as he vowed his loyalty to the new King. Alexander looked up at the stained glass window above, which depicted the Lamb of God, and he closed his eyes. Eleanor came forward, and began to kneel before her son, but Alexander would have none of that. He took her hand, shaking his head. "By no means, Mama, will you ever bow before me or any other man." He kissed her cheeks. "We have a war to fight and to win," he said. He looked at Archbishop Nichols, who bowed his head.
"Dear God our Father… please grant unto us strength and courage, and deliver us from fear. We thank You, Father, for all we have and for Your continued blessings as You will. We ask You for Your wisdom, for Your peace and love which surpasses all understanding and which is in 'good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over'. We know You are with us, Father, for we all are with You, and we do pray earnestly for You to strengthen our King, and to give him a devoted heart, eager to serve and obey You in all things. Please grant us all comfort in this our time of grief, and grant us all the courage to face the storms that are coming, and to never waver in our devotion to You and to each other. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost we all do pray, Amen."
Eleanor drew a shuddering breath and looked up at the same stained glass window. God, forgive me for the blood I will have to shed, she prayed as tears streamed down her cheeks. Henry's death cannot go unavenged—it is a trespass that cannot be forgiven now. Let justice be served swiftly and surely, and with all due severity. And if the secrets of my heart must be revealed, then let it be so, as long as my children are safe.
Constantine was becoming annoyed.
He glared at the young soldier, who was still lying in the dust in the training yard outside Garon, the wind clearly knocked out of him. The prince shifted his heavy baton from his right to his left hand and waited. The boy—barely twenty and the son of a highly-regarded soldier—slowly regained his feet and picked up his sword. Constantine waited for the boy to make another attack, and was prepared for the attempted strike even before he raised his sword. He smacked the sword out of the boy's hand again.
"Bloody hell. You might as well take up embroidery," Constantine growled. "So long as the needles aren't too sharp."
The young knight looked down, sweat soaking his hair, armpits and chest, and he backed away. Constantine frowned—he was not usually given to publicly humiliating anyone. "You need to practice more," he said, lowering his voice and giving the boy's shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "Use a heavier baton and attack the pell as though it was your worst enemy. Hell, you can imagine it's me, if that'll help."
The boy nodded and staggered away to sit and try to cool down. Constantine sighed when he saw Michael coming up, ready to take him on. He was having a hard time, of late, keeping up with the boy—the young prince had natural talent to go along with a cool, rather calculating approach to sword fighting, and he was also an expert archer, an outstanding horseman and superb hand-to-hand fighter. Other knights attacked in the kind of frenzy one would expect in a hard fight, but Michael was always watching and waiting for an opening to use to his advantage. He knew about the value of surprise, of subtlety, distraction, deceit and most importantly he knew when to fall back, regroup, and launch another assault. Yet for all that, the boy never seemed to lose his cool.
Michael took his stance, and Constantine eyed the lad. It was hard to believe, really, that Michael was only fifteen—he was already six feet tall with a wide chest and hair already growing on his jaws, as well as on his schmekel. His voice was already deep, and he carried himself with a quiet, steady confidence that certainly indicated the boy had a good future. Just the same, however, he had his moments—Michael still had a short temper and in his youth he often had trouble maintaining control over his emotions.
Just like me, Constantine thought, at forty-five.
Constantine deflected his son's first strike, and Michael pivoted, attempting to deliver a blow to his father's ribs, but Constantine was a spare step ahead of him and knocked the boy's baton away, though Michael did not lose his grip on the weapon. The prince went at his father again, and Constantine stepped back, keeping out of reach, and nodded over Michael's shoulder. "Look, there's Lady Rose."
Michael was distracted, turning his head to seek out the girl, and Constantine knocked his baton out of his hand, stepping back and grinning. Michael glared at his father, but turned his attention back to Lady Rose Montgomery, daughter of a highly-regarded nobleman. The girl was a pretty little blonde, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, sweet blue eyes and a slender, graceful figure. She smiled shyly at the two princes, but her attention was focused entirely on Michael. She was a few months younger than the prince, and shared his interest in music and poetry—they had formed a friendship, over the past winter, due to some book of poems and songs.
Sometimes, Constantine wondered if his son didn't just use music and poems to get in with girls. He wouldn't be the first or last young man to use such devices, after all. Still, Rose was the first girl Michael had really centered his attentions on, and so Constantine never teased the boy about her, and made a note to speak with Lord George Montgomery on the matter. They were both too young for any talk of marriage, of course, but Constantine liked to keep matters in hand and apprise her father of the consequences, good or bad, of the girl spending so much time with his eldest son.
Michael ambled over to talk with Rose, who did not bob or simper before him like other girls. In fact, for all her soft prettiness, Lady Rose had a steely quality about her. She was not harsh, nor did she give any impression that she was after a crown, but she had a toughness to her that Constantine rather liked. In fact, she reminded him a great deal of Eleanor: the girl was not afraid of royalty, much less his rather dour, temperamental son, and while she was a sweet, gentle creature, she was not above speaking her mind when required.
Good God, Constantine thought, tossing his baton into a cart. Michael is me all over again, and his growing attachment to Lady Rose Montgomery was a repeat of his own courtship of Eleanor Reeve. He walked over to the two teenagers and nodded politely to the girl. "Lady Rose, it's good to see you."
"Thank you, sir. It was quite unfair of you to distract your son so."
Constantine couldn't keep from grinning. "Thank you. Tell me, Lady Rose, are you by any chance related to anyone named Reeve?"
She looked puzzled. "No, my lord. Not that I know of."
He nodded. "Good day to you, Lady Rose, and give my regards to your parents. Michael, I'm going inside for something to eat and try to avoid Charlotte's latest attempts at cake-baking. You'll come along soon enough, I suppose."
Michael nodded, looking a little bewildered, and Constantine started toward the palace gates, eager for a bit of supper with his youngest daughter. He was startled when a man came galloping into the courtyard on a heavily-lathered horse and drew the animal to a skidding stop. Constantine raised his eyebrows when he recognized Lord James Hallam.
"Your Royal Highness," Hallam said, dismounting quickly. He dug in his pocket and extracted a piece of paper, handing it to the prince.
Constantine read the note, eyes widening in complete astonishment.
My husband has been murdered. My children's lives are in grave danger. We have taken refuge in the only place available and await your help.
Can I trust you to keep the promise you made to me, so long ago at Ravensburg?
Eleanor the Queen
"Where is Elizabeth?" he asked sharply.
"She is with the royal family at St. Michael's, and for now she is safe, sir," Hallam answered.
Constantine crumpled the paper in his hand and stood, silently staring toward the north, then suddenly paced back toward the training yard and the garrison, where a large number of the infantry and cavalry of the Morvenian army was quartered. "General Tynan!" he shouted, and soon his second-in-command, a burly man with a rough beard and sharp grey eyes, came out of a storage room, brow furrowed.
"Your Royal Highness?"
"I want the army, the cavalry, all the archers and every sword, bow and piece of weaponry prepared to move within the hour. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," Tynan nodded.
"I want every soldier in Morvenia to be at the Gravonian border, at Simond Pass, by nightfall. Anyone who does not muster will be subjected to the severest punishment, save he is able to present satisfactory reasons for his absence. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," Tynan looked briefly at Hallam, who had followed the prince into the training yard. "Lord Hallam, what is… "
"I must speak with my brother," Constantine cut in. He called for a horse, swung astride and galloped away toward the palace. Tynan looked at Lord Hallam, who closed his eyes, exhaustion making him need to lean against his tired horse.
"Good God, man, what has happened?"
"King Henry has been murdered and Beauchamp has usurped the throne. The Queen and King Alexander have taken refuge in the cathedral in Luvov, with the princes and many members of the royal household. I must return to Luvov immediately, sir. Might I borrow a fresh horse?"
Philip rarely liked to admit to any of the usual aches and pains that came along with age. Considering he had a younger brother who seemed to brush off debilitating injuries as a 'bee sting', Philip figured he needed to save face as much as possible.
Just the same, his knees were killing him. It had gotten to the point that he could not even kneel during Mass. Constantine had pointed out to him that God would hear his prayers whether he was sitting or not, but old habits die hard and the King felt uncomfortable sitting there during services while everyone else was on their knees. It could be pointed out, of course, that he was a King, but Philip suspected a King should humble himself before God even more than a peasant.
The King drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne, watching as a large herd of peasants were brought into the Presence Chamber. He smiled warmly at them all—one thing he enjoyed, as a ruler, was the opportunity to just talk to the people he ruled over. The last thing he wanted was to be a distant, unconcerned monarch. He didn't like to interfere in their lives, and refused to let his government butt in either, except when disaster struck, but Petitions Saturday was always a way to determine how well things were going in his kingdom.
Constantine, he knew, wouldn't enjoy the duty half as much, as he was so shy of talking to friends or strangers, but Philip had full confidence that his younger brother would be an excellent king. If Constantine was anything, he was compassionate toward the poor and unfortunate, and he would definitely have a firm hand over how much the government tried to horn in on things. He was already adamantly opposed to taxes of any kind, calling them little more than robbery, and Philip figured he was going to have one hell of a lot of trouble with his Council one day, as they were very much in favor of them.
"Your Majesty, the petitioners are all assembled. Their written petitions are also prepared for your perusal."
Philip nodded and his brow furrowed when he saw his brother stalk into the room. The peasants shrank back from the angry looking prince, and the King stood, bewildered—Constantine never interrupted such proceedings unless it was something of great importance. "Brother… what is… "
"We must leave, Philip. Lacovia is invading Gravonia and King Henry has been murdered. The… the Queen has called for our assistance, and we must move quickly. As in right now."
The King stared at Constantine, seeing something besides the usual steely determination there. He saw very real fear, and that was enough to propel Philip down the steps. He looked at his Court Chamberlain, who nodded. "Ladies and gentlemen, His Majesty does apologize sincerely for this interruption, but a matter has arisen that does require his immediate attention. We will reschedule your petitions as soon as possible…"
Philip was already at the door, following Constantine out into the marble-floored hallway, and he grabbed Constantine's shoulder. "Brother, listen to me."
Constantine turned and faced his brother, expression fierce, but Philip did not shrink back.
"You must try and maintain some degree of calm, Constantine. Riding into Luvov, all horns and rattles and getting yourself injured or killed will not help Eleanor one bit. Remember what old Charlotte always told you."
"She told me many things," Constantine answered shortly. "Wash my hands, keep my teeth clean, stand when a woman enters the room, clean the blood off my sword after I kill a man… "
"One other thing she told you was to let your brains overrule your heart in matters like this. They need your help, not your rage. Enraged generals usually end up dead generals, and I for one would not like seeing my baby brother dead."
Constantine swallowed and looked out the window at Prospect Quay below. "What if she's… "
"She's alive. I can't imagine a world without that woman in it. She's as tough as nails, too—you know that, but she needs your help just the same."
"But… "Constantine could not look at his brother, as his eyes were stinging. "She's just one woman, with six sons to protect, and my daughter is… "
"Safe, so long as she's with Eleanor. I will give word to the Council to draw up a declaration of… protector-ship, if need be, and if she will agree to it we will have Eleanor and her children and Elizabeth all brought here for safety's sake and set up a government in exile. If required, they can regroup here and… "
"I know for a fact that Eleanor will not leave Gravonia."
Philip looked up toward the heavens. "Probably not, but we should offer refuge just the same, for Elizabeth's sake."
"I would be ashamed of Eleanor and her sons, and Elizabeth too, if they agreed to leave the country." Constantine began fingering the blue silk ribbon the hilt of his sword. "But we will offer the choice to her."
"Ma'am, there are Lacovian soldiers coming into the city," Sir Niall said, still breathing heavily as he bowed to the Queen. "Be assured that the palace has been evacuated entirely, save Lord Despencer, and everyone in the city has been instructed to remain indoors and to be prepared for a… house-to-house battle."
"Dear God," Eleanor whispered.
"Lord Beauchamp has not been seen yet," the Captain of the Guard told her, glancing toward the great cathedral doors, which were being pushed shut by several men, and finally the heavy bar was being pulled down across, sealing everyone in. The doors to the east, west and north had already all been sealed as well, per Archbishop Nichols' orders, and Eleanor wondered how long it would take for anyone to realize the royal family and their servants were taking refuge in St. Michael's. She rather doubted he would be bringing his men to the cathedral for a worship service any time soon.
"There is only the little courtyard in the back of the cathedral, right?" Eleanor asked the Archbishop.
"Yes. It is gated, too. Someone, for some reason, thought to put spikes on the railings, long ago. Climbing over would result in… unfortunate injuries."
Eleanor's mouth curled in a bitter smile. "I dare say it was probably King Andrew."
"Probably, ma'am. He was… a little… uneasy about coming to St. Michael's for worship. He preferred the palace chapel."
"And I've found that even a house of worship is no guarantee of safety," Eleanor said, feeling a slight twinge of pain from the spot where Rieti had stabbed her, so long ago.
"Beauchamp would never dare have his soldiers attack the cathedral. Everyone in Luvov would know of the crime."
She looked up at the magnificent altar, decorated with exquisitely carved angels and saints. "See all the carvings are taken down and stored."
"But ma'am… " Archbishop Nichols started.
"Please see it is done, sir. I will not have this place or its treasures stolen or destroyed."
Nichols nodded and paced away to begin the work. Eleanor sighed and looked up at the vaulted ceiling of the atrium, where the gallery above was pierced with statues of early kings and bishops of Luvov, with a sculpture in the middle of the Archangel Michael holding his sword out over the doors to the nave. She sighed and paced down the long center aisle, passing the Lady Chapel, where the offspring of commoners of Gravonia were christened. She continued walking to the Crossing, paused and looked up at the soaring ceiling above, where beautiful frescos depicting various saints and scenes from the Bible were painted in vivid colors.
Eleanor turned to face Elizabeth, who was sitting in one of the stalls of the choir. The girl closed her prayer book and stood.
"You really should not be up here, Elizabeth," Eleanor said softly.
"And you, ma'am?"
Eleanor looked at the altar and sighed. "I married Henry here," she said. "The following day, I was crowned here as Queen consort. Nineteen and a half years I have had here in Gravonia. Sometimes it's hard to believe it's been that long." She looked at the girl who would one day wear the consort's crown. "It's funny, isn't it, how when you're young, time never seems to go by fast enough, and when you get older, time seems to fly… you find yourself grasping for another moment, another hour, another day."
"I feel that way," Elizabeth said softly. "How time seems to crawl."
The Queen smiled softly, tears stinging her eyes again. "When I was your age, Elizabeth, time never moved fast enough. Had it done so, I would not be here at all. I would be… somewhere else entirely, living a different life." She looked at the young princess and did not attempt to even wipe her tears away. "I would give all for another moment… for a chance to say goodbye to him. To have protected him… " She clenched her fists, struggling to regain her self-control, and finally hugged herself, shivering. "He had blood all over him, Elizabeth. He was stabbed so many times I… I could not tell… which… oh God, he's gone. He's gone and I'm alone."
"You are not alone, ma'am. You have your sons and me and your household, and God knows we are with you, and will never abandon you."
"But I failed him," Eleanor whispered as Elizabeth embraced her. "I failed him. Had I not… why did I not realize… "
"You did not fail him. Ma'am, I have never heard of you failing at anything. Besides, how could you have known?"
"I had a nightmare," Eleanor said, wiping her tears away but unable to prevent more as she stood back from the girl. "I don't even remember the nightmare, really. I just woke with this horrible… I sensed… something. Something was not right, and I should have gone straight to… I… it runs in my family, apparently. Second sight, or whatever you might call it. Some kind of ability to sense, though in all honesty I would usually say it is nonsense… but my grandmother saw it in my future—my being a Queen."
Elizabeth looked puzzled. "I had not heard that such a gift was found in the Livonian royal family."
Eleanor turned away, struggling to regain her composure at least a little. "It isn't." She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms and turned back to the girl. "We must go back downstairs. The Archbishop is removing the treasures of the cathedral and we must not be underfoot."
Elizabeth followed Eleanor back down the stairs to the larger common room where everyone was gathered. Alexander was seated with his brothers, and he rose when he saw his mother. She tried to smile at him, but her vision blurred with exhaustion and tears—when had she last eaten? She could not remember. She had thought so little of anything besides what needed to be done, and there was still so much to do. She felt as though she were caught in a horrible undercurrent and could barely keep her head above water. It was even getting hard to breathe.
Sir Niall approached her. "Ma'am, I took the liberty of also ordering the treasury to be emptied and all the gold and jewels to be hidden in the secret chambers, beneath the palace." He took a key from his pocket. "I have the only key, and the doors cannot be opened by any other means. If it does not offend you, ma'am, I even had your personal belongings taken from your rooms and hidden. They will not be found."
She touched the Captain of the Guard's arm, smiling through her tears. "Thank you, Sir Niall. Your loyalty commends you, and your presence of mind makes your promotion even more fitting. We are all grateful to you, for that, and for removing our household to safety."
"It was no trouble at all, ma'am," he said with a modest bow of the head.
Eleanor continued down the steps and was embraced by her eldest son. The King held his mother, letting her break down and begin weeping, and everyone in the room bowed their heads, the sight of their broken-hearted, weeping Queen too much to bear. Elizabeth whispered to her ladies, who sent for food for Eleanor and went in search of clean clothes. "Ma'am, you must rest," Elizabeth finally whispered gently as Meg arrived with a plate of meat, bread and cheese.
The Queen stared at Elizabeth for several moments before finally drawing a shaky breath. "Rest, Elizabeth? There is no rest today or tomorrow or next week or next month. I will not rest until I know my children and everyone here is safe and Beauchamp's head is on a spike at the Tower Gate! Do not speak to me of 'rest'. It is a foreign notion to me."
"Mama, you must eat and sleep," Alexander pressed gently, startled to see such white-hot rage in his mother's eyes.
Eleanor glared at her son, but as she began to snap at him, the fact that he seemed rather blurry to her gave credence to his argument. She withdrew and allowed Elizabeth to lead her to a chair. She sat down, drawing a few shuddering breaths, and picked up a piece of bread from the platter. "Thank you, Elizabeth," she said softly, and forced herself to eat.
"You're welcome, ma'am. You really do need to… try and be… calm… or… " She clasped her hands and looked at Alexander, who nodded in agreement.
"Elizabeth, I have sent for your father. I am certain he will be here shortly."
"You sent for Prince Constantine?" Alexander asked, astonished. "What of our own army?"
"We have an excellent army, sweetheart, but can you name a single more brilliant commander than Prince Constantine?" Eleanor asked softly.
Alexander's expression hardened and he bristled. "Am I not now the commander of the royal army and navy, Mama?" he finally asked carefully.
"You are. But you have no experience at command or on the battlefield. I will not risk your life or the lives of your brothers. Your army and navy will be joined by the forces of Morvenia and together they will… they will drive Lacovia and Beauchamp out."
"But Mama… I must be seen… no one in Gravonia, besides folks in Willemet, even know that Papa is dead… the King is dead and I… "
"I did not carry you in my womb for nine months, nor did I spend eighteen years worrying and praying and working to train you for this role, only to lose you now on some damned battlefield!" she shouted at him, startling everyone into shocked silence. "I will not have it!"
Alexander took a deep breath, but Elizabeth stepped between them. "Ma'am, you ought to lie down and sleep. You are clearly very distressed and for good reason, but you are far too strained now and we all fear for your health. Please? For your sake as much as your sons'." She gestured toward the door to a room Agnes had already prepared, and Eleanor looked around at the room full of familiar, dear faces. These people would continue to look to her as an example and as a leader, and Elizabeth was right: she would be of no use whatsoever in this fight if she fell apart.
The Queen, still in her blood-soaked red dress, her hair scraped back into a tight bun since arriving at the cathedral, and her eyes rimmed in red from lack of sleep and tears, swept silently from the room. She accepted the tray of food from Agnes, then nodded for her lady-in-waiting to leave her alone. Eleanor sat down on the little cot and methodically let her hair down, removed her shoes, then her bodice and finally her dress. She examined the blood-stained cloth, tracing her fingers over the black stags decorating the bodice. She clutched the dress to her chest, letting the blood stain her white chemise, and she finally curled up on her side, sobbing helplessly until exhaustion finally claimed her and she slept.